February 21st, 2011
Profiles from the Recession
[REPORT] Obama and Republicans stand on opposite sides of the high-speed tracks

Tom McNamara, Blueprint America

An artist's conception of a high-speed rail station in California. Officials there approved a $4.3 billion proposal to build California's first segment of high-speed rail line that would run through the state's agricultural heart. (AP Photo/ California High-Speed Rail Authority)

The Republican Party has drawn a line, taking on President Obama’s high-speed rail plan as he begins to defend his presidency with the 2012 election not far off. The opposition solidified on Wednesday when Gov. Rick Scott (R.-Fla.) became the third Republican state leader to turn down federal dollars for high-speed rail. Wisconsin and Ohio first refused a combined billion dollars for lines that would have connected the Midwest; Florida now rejects a link between Tampa and Orlando, forgoing more than $2 billion.

Just as in Wisconsin, the money in Florida would have covered almost the entire cost of construction. And just as in Wisconsin, the governor argued that high-speed rail would forever obligate the state to subsidize the cost to keep trains running.

Scott’s announcement came a little more than a week after Vice President Joe Biden called for spending $53 billion on passenger trains and high-speed rail projects over the next six years. An initial $8 billion of that plan is already a part of the budget recently released by the White House.

Losing Florida, however, is a huge blow to the Obama administration, which wants to make high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans within 25 years. Around this time last year, the president came to Tampa amid fanfare and with funding in hand to announce the beginning of an American high-speed rail system. Obama chose Florida because the 85-mile Tampa-to-Orlando line, on which trains would travel as fast as 170 miles per hour, was to be the national showpiece for high-speed rail. Construction could have even started this year because the state already owned much of the land along the route, which would allow it to be built relatively quickly.

Without a change in the national plan though, high-speed trains won’t be running anytime soon in the country. With Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida out of the picture, California remains the farthest along in its rail development, with trains potentially running by the decade’s end.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he was “extremely disappointed” by Scott’s decision in a statement Wednesday, but that the money would likely be redistributed to other states.

Although Scott threatened to turn down the billions in rail money when he ran for office last year, many in the state were surprised that he actually followed through. Florida’s unemployment rate is about 12 percent, and the rail project had been expected to create thousands of new jobs.

Had the money been accepted, it’s possible to imagine that Obama, less than two years from now, would be out stomping for votes from points between Tampa and Orlando, touting job creation and 21st century transportation improvements. Instead, the state is now home to a substantial Obama loss. If Florida turns out to be a swing-state come election time (as it always seems to), Republicans may have just won the first battle for the state and, perhaps, the White House.

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